Studying abroad was the absolute best decision I made in college. The idea popped into my head during my third year, and I headed for England just four months later. At 21 years old, I packed my bags and sat alone at the airport, excited and scared of what I (sort of) impulsively got myself into. I went to the University of Worcester in England for the Spring 2011 semester, where I stayed in a dorm with other international students. At the time, I thought the best part of it all was the absolute freedom to travel.
Flash-forward to almost five years later, I look back and realize that my experiences shaped exactly who and where I am today. It wasn’t just about the places I visited or the pictures I took; it was about growing up and learning from my mistakes. Here are three life lessons I learned from studying abroad, and reasons why I will always be grateful to have gone.
Ride the wave. You can try to plan and strategize everything you do, but often times, it won’t work out that way. We hear this all the time but it’s hard to conceptualize it until you’re out of college and living in the real world. When I was traveling abroad, there were flights I missed, things I forgot to pack, and money that I lost – and it all felt like the worst thing ever. I went nuts trying to figure my way out around problems, but ultimately I learned to be more flexible, innovative, and adaptive with my solutions. In your personal and professional life, many unexpected things happen and it makes no difference whether you can control them or not. It’s important to be willing to adapt to a new company, boss, or change the relationships you’re in and the career you are set on having. While it’s good to have a blueprint the next ten years, the truth is that good luck happens just as much as bad luck. Just keep moving forward.
You are a little freckle on the face of the earth. We always get told that everyone’s different and we shouldn’t judge anyone. But exposing yourself to different cultures makes you realize that your judgments and assumptions of others are only based on social standards that you grew up with. Whether they were instilled by your parents or friends, it’s all you know. Traveling and interacting with people that are totally different allows you to understand that the ideals you’ve been taught are not the only ones that exist – and you may not agree with them. What you always thought was “right” perhaps isn’t. Once you truly internalize what all of that means, the more you’ll be able to think for yourself. Opening your mind to the reality that people, many people, exist outside your bubble (your friends/town/country), the better you’ll be at accepting others despite your opinions of them. This characteristic is not only crucial to your personal development, but in your professional growth as well. No matter what industry you’re in, you’ll be exposed to people from all sorts of backgrounds. It’s not a matter of knowing everything about them, but a matter of having a respect for their differences.
Everything has a deadline. When you’re young, it’s easy to feel invincible and think everything lasts forever. This is because the transition between grammar school, high school, and college aren’t really that drastic; they all consist of classrooms, textbooks, summer vacations – the list goes on. You go through the motions with your friends and it seems like your 30th birthday is literally never going to happen. When I headed home from the U.K., I realized how quickly life passes by. One week I was at the Cliffs of Moher, the next I was camping out for Will and Kate’s royal wedding, and then suddenly I was just sitting on my couch watching TV in New Jersey. Now, at 26 years old, I can’t even process the fact that my early twenties are gone. Though it’s common to want to fast-forward to a future event (whether it’s graduating or turning 21), it’s important to stop and appreciate the here and now. One day, you might be wishing you were right where you are at this moment.
As someone who is all about making mistakes and experiencing things on my own, I am the first to say that reading about life lessons isn’t even close to learning them. But if there’s anything I hope people will gain by reading this, it’s to look for something to take a chance on while there’s time (and to obviously study abroad if you can). It’s not just about making new memories, it’s about changing yourself for the better, too.